The story of Simon Schama
I have now finally watched all five episodes of Simon Schama’s much acclaimed Story of the Jews, which was broadcast last month on BBC TV. I have also read the accompanying book, which covers 1000 BCE to 1492 CE; the second volume is due out next year.
Like many others, I found much of the TV series spell-binding, magnificent and moving (the first episode was a bit incoherent, though; and more than a little jarring to launch such a series by dwelling upon Sigmund Freud’s bizarre Moses and Monotheism, which told the world little except that Freud had the mother and father of a problem when it came to his own ancestral faith).
Much of the rest of the series, though, was wonderful; and Schama is of course a peerless communicator, story-teller and performer. The book is even better; he breathes life into the past, his detail is as unexpected as it is illuminating, and you are just swept along by his passion, his emotion and his personal commitment.
But that’s just it, really: this is very much Simon Schama’s deeply personal Story of the Jews. Indeed, it feels to some extent like Simon Schama’s own story. For what drives the whole thing, what invests the narrative with such urgent, almost desperate passion, is what seems to be Schama’s ambivalence towards the faith of his ancestors: an ambivalence which appears to be as profound as his commitment to the Jewish people.
Of the strength of that commitment, there can be absolutely no doubt. What radiates throughout is the intense and loving attachment he still feels to the Jewish culture in which he was brought up. But what is so very clear from the book, if not the series, is that Schama is anxious to address two fundamental issues which gnaw away at him.
First, given his presumption that the Hebrew Bible is not to be taken literally, how then to explain the fact that the Jews stuck to their religious story through thick and thin? Might there actually be something Out There to explain it? Surely not! And yet…
Second, he tries to show that there is nothing about Judaism which means the Jews have to be separate from the host communities in which they have settled over the centuries. He finds example after example where the Jews have adapted to, and taken on the characteristics of, those majority cultures.
With both these issues, you feel he is trying to square a personal circle: the deep attachment which he himself, the quintessential man of reason and liberal pluralism, nevertheless feels for a stubbornly particularist, often obscurantist culture rooted in an unshakeable religious faith that has bafflingly survived the very worst that humanity can throw at it over and over again.
But try as he may, even Simon Schama cannot remake Judaism in his own image. And nowhere is this attempt more painful than in the final programme in the series, where he twists and turns over the State of Israel.
Yes, he states unequivocally ‘I am a Zionist’ – a statement which, in today’s lethal climate, amounts to a conspicuous act of courage. And there is also no doubt from the series that Israel moves him very profoundly.
Yet he selects the separation barrier as one of his defining images of Israel – an image he hates. Moreover, he depicts it as a wall – an ‘iron wall’ – whereas most of it is merely a far less daunting wire fence. And although he states emphatically that the barrier only came into being in response to the Palestinians’ campaign of mass murder against Israelis, and that yes, it has indeed saved countless Israeli lives, he goes on to make an impassioned denunciation of the barrier as not being what Judaism is all about.
So what exactly is it about the separation barrier that is supposed to be so un-Jewish, one wonders? Is it that it causes hardship for the Arabs on the other side? Is it, as he suggests elsewhere, that it separates Jews from Arabs and is therefore anti-inclusive?
If so, this is terribly wrong-headed. Israel does not separate Jews from Arabs. Israeli Arabs are integrated into Israeli life and enjoy full civil rights. The only Arabs the barrier separates from Israelis are those Arabs who live in communities which serve as factories of genocidal mass murder. There is nothing un-Jewish about protecting the innocent against those who wish to kill them; on the contrary, it is surely a moral imperative in any civilised society. And the hardship this inflicts upon innocent Palestinians, which is indeed regrettable, only occurs because those communities will otherwise be party to the continued murder of Israelis.
Schama clearly knows all that. So why did he make a point of repudiating the Israel that has built that barrier? The answer is surely to be found in the series as a whole, and in particular in the deeply emotional penultimate episode about the Holocaust.
For Schama suggests that his Zionism is fired by his deep historical understanding that the Jews will never be safe other than in their own country. He sees Israel therefore through the prism of the Holocaust, and rightly regards it as a modern-day miracle that the Jews emerged from genocide to create their own country, with foundational values of which he is proud.
But the Jews do not owe their rights over Israel to the Holocaust. Zionism is not a victims’ charter, but the right to self-determination of the Jewish people. The Jews are entitled to Israel not because of their unique history of suffering, but because it is their own historic homeland. They are the only people as ‘a’ people for whom it was ever their national kingdom, which it was for hundreds of years before the Arabs came onto the scene at all; and so the Jews are thus entitled to have their own country as a matter of historical, legal and moral right.
But Schama's presentation misleadingly suggested instead that the Palestinian Arabs had an equivalent or even superior claim to the land. His programme made no mention of the international treaty in 1922 which explicitly recognised the unique Jewish right to settle all the land, including what is now the West Bank and Gaza.
Nor did the programme mention the betrayal by Britain of that treaty obligation, an ever-present incitement to Arab aggression which is the true cause of the Arab-Israel war without end. His moral indignation at a Jewish resident of Samaria for daring to live there demonstrated that, remarkably, Schama seems unaware of this history – and that the Jewish habitation of Samaria which causes him such disgust, on the false grounds that it is based on a contestable religious belief, is in fact rooted instead in history and law.
Quite why he cannot see this must remain a matter for speculation. But from the rest of his series, it would seem that he mourns the lost story of victims miraculously creating life out of the ashes – a story he suggests has been fatally compromised by the measures those victims are forced to take to ensure they never again are turned into ash.
In other words, he wants to turn Israel and the Jewish people into a different kind of story – his own story, the story to which he is so deeply attached. But that one is a story based on the myth of a world without hard choices, where the morally pure are those who never make any such hard choices – and where it follows that victimhood is therefore the pinnacle of morality.
But the State of Israel was founded on the great cry of ‘never again’ – and it means it. Which is why, whatever garlanded TV shows are made or books written, and however many ambivalent Jews wring their hands over it, Israel will never allow itself to become part of someone else’s story.